Connecting the Dots: Behaviour, Reputation and the Skills Shortage – just published by the BCS

This article has just been published by the BCS in their annual Digital Leaders journal, which can be found here:



I have been thinking about why it is that the technology supply chain, and especially in fields such as project management and security, is not attracting sufficient numbers of new entrants in absolute terms and also in terms of the levels of ability in those that do join our ranks. Yes, there are many wonderfully talented and bright and insightful individuals and some of them manage to find each other and become effective teams. There are also some great initiatives, such as the Cyber Security Challenge[1] doing amazing things to bring awareness of the issues and opportunities to those outside the industry and in schools. However, many supply companies I have worked for or with appear to aim for mediocrity rather than seeking to excel; it is as if they believe that their own people are not up to doing better – and that customers need to be taught not to expect better.

It is hardly an earth-shattering revelation that success breeds success and that success is attractive, examples abound in all walks of life, both at work and socially… star athletes want to play for the best teams: winners want to win. One of the reasons I believe we have a skills shortage across many key disciplines is that our teenagers only ever see negative reports about what we do. Hearing only of failure makes our industry unattractive, and particularly to young women – only 15% of the ICT workforce is female[2]! In fact the only technology-related sector that can boast a 50:50 gender ratio is digital marketing. We need to find ways to improve our success rates and make sure that the successes are publicised as energetically as the failures.

Is this unattractiveness perhaps due to the staggering proportion of technology-related projects that blow up in our faces and all over the news media? You might point to eBorders or the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative, the steady stream of suppliers quitting the NHS’s NPfIT as headline grabbing examples of how not to deliver. Sorry folks, but if we want to tempt the next generation away from banking, accountancy, law or any other discipline we need them to see this industry as a place where it is possible to do great things and to be successful.

My conclusion, from more than 20 years experience across numerous sectors and disciplines, is that there is an unhealthy combination of delusion and collusion at play. This serves nobody well, it leads to poor decision-making and the kinds of project failures, cost and time overruns that happen too often to the detriment of our collective reputation. Looking to the future of this industry, on which we, the professionals, rely for our income and the rest of society relies on for almost every aspect of modern life, we need to attract more young, talented people into the field – and repeated reports of failures do nothing to enhance the image of our professions.

Fixed Price Delusion

Fixed Price?

Those of us long of tooth and grey of hair will all recall the Project Manager’s Dilemma of balancing cost, time and quality… on the surface a fixed price and fixed time approach can be very attractive as a means of identifying a supplier with whom a customer can work. It levels the playing field so all suppliers are bidding against a set of relatively well-defined criteria.

However, as an approach to managing a project, it is a car crash waiting to happen when circumstances prove to not be quite as defined in the original invitation to tender – and they never are. Who mediates when acceptance of deliverables is dependent on a meeting of minds as to what “fit for purpose” or “acceptable” means? If a customer wants an additional version of a document deliverable for any reason, does that constitute a contract change? Who was responsible for there being a requirement for an additional version?

I recall a recent project[3] where this occurred regularly and on each occasion the customer’s stated view was that the additional iteration was required to bring the document up to the required level of quality. But if the supposed quality issues are identified by a reviewer added to the list of contributors for the final review, is it reasonable for the supplier to incorporate their comments at no additional charge to the customer, assuming that the comments warrant inclusion? Relationships can and do break down over accumulations of such apparently minor issues.

By all means use the fixed price concept for tendering purposes, but let us please stop fooling ourselves that any project exists in the kind of vacuum required for such a project to be delivered successfully for all parties.

Silo Delusion

Need to Know?

There are, of course, many sound business and/or security reasons for not sharing everything about your business with your suppliers. But consider this, when you fail to inform a supplier of something that materially impacts their ability to deliver something you have asked for[4], you give them a justified opportunity to renegotiate the terms under which that deliverable is to be produced. I have worked on projects where the customer routinely failed to inform my project of the other activities that depended on our outputs, except of course when a delay to our project caused a delay to another activity.

A project delivers an output to its customer’s organisation, but for that output to deliver the expected outcome needs more than a delivery note and an invoice. We seem to have developed a culture where the “need to know” principle is being applied with rather too much enthusiasm and inappropriately. Projects organised into portfolios and programmes stand a far higher chance of succeeding at least partially due to the requirement for cross-project communication and collaboration that are inherent in the management of portfolios and programmes.

Snake Oil Delusion

Who Delivers?

In contracting with suppliers, all too often the customer’s team are less experienced than the supplier’s pre-sales team and can be led to conclusions that suit the supplier more than they might the customer. Then when the contract is awarded, the supplier often hands the responsibility to a project delivery team who have not worked on the pre-sales stage and have less experience and knowledge than their pre-sales colleagues. Communication within organisations is always a challenge and the separation of pre-sales and delivery responsibilities is one of the key areas that need to be addressed in supplier organisations if the reputation of this industry is to be improved.

My own experience, running a multi-million professional services division for one of the major computer manufacturers, is that breaking this barrier was more effective than providing training or incentives to improve communication. When the people involved in making the sale know they are also going to be accountable for the delivery, there is a subtle change in mindset that makes them think farther ahead than getting the purchase order. This results in better project outcomes and happier customers, which builds trust and directly leads to further business. More business creates more opportunities for new people to come in and experience the success, which creates brand and industry ambassadors.

As long as the negative behaviour continues, projects will continue to cost more than originally announced, results will continue to be worse than required and we, the technology supply chain, will continue to struggle to attract new talent into an industry with a very public record of failure. To address the skills shortage we need to make our industry attractive again and it is going to require more than a cosmetic make-over.

Alternatively, we can work together as an industry with our customers and competitors to change the culture in which technology projects are bought, sold and delivered, with a greater emphasis on effective governance, honest communication, seeking success for all concerned with excellence in evidence in all activities. It can be done. I have the evidence[5] to show that making these changes can turn failure into success, convert losses into profits, make customers and stakeholders happy and build teams that are proud to work together.


[2] Source: Mortimer Spinks/Computer Weekly Technology Industry Survey 2014

[3] with a European Telecommunications organisation

[4] Such as a project in 2013 where my customer failed to inform us that they were restructuring and half of the team we were working with lost their jobs

[5] 2004-2006 UK professional services division of US-based computer hardware manufacturer: project success rates from <50% to >95%, unplanned expenditure from >$2m to <$75k, turnover from $12m to $43m, team from 25 to 90

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